Living color


Allison Smith painted her Victorian in Portland’s Lair Hill neighborhood a vivid turquoise, as befits a color expert. // Photo by Teresa Meier

Take a walk through Lair Hill, a neighborhood tucked between the Willamette River and the southwest hills of Portland, and you’ll find rows of turn-of-the-century Victorians. The tall, skinny homes with ornate architectural detailing and storied pasts blend together, except for one brightly colored turquoise home, the home of Allison Smith.

“The Victorian era was a time of boldness and a period where extravagance was celebrated; you could just go for it,” says Smith. “I love this house and turquoise is one of my favorite colors; it was a daring choice but I knew it was the right one. It makes me happy every time I see it.”

Don’t be fooled, this was not a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants color decision, but rather one made from a color theory she’s developed (and proven successful) over many years.

It was clear from childhood that Smith was a designer. Afternoons spent rearranging her mother’s eclectic collection of art and furniture evolved from playtime to schooling. Allison left southern California for New York City to study art, and soon landed an internship with Vera Neumann, a 1970s artist and textile designer best known for her vibrant colors and bold pattern designs.

She eventually migrated back west, first to southern California, where she worked for a commercial design firm, and in the late 1980s to the Northwest, where Smith promptly made a big bang in the design community. 

In Portland less than a year, Smith partnered with a builder to design a Street of Dreams home that won accolades including Best of Show and Best Kitchen. From there, Smith’s interior design practice took off. 




The interior of Smith’s home, above, is as colorful as the exterior. Smith has developed a line of paint colors that helps consumers narrow down their choices and take the guesswork out of color selection. // Photos by Teresa Meier

Smith has worked on a variety of homes and commercial design projects throughout the years. In the early 1990s she started “Allison Smith Decorate With What You Own,” a design side business that helps clients redesign without having to refurbish or refurnish. However, despite working on a variety of home and commercial projects, Smith always found herself battling a common design dilemma: color. 

“I figured out early that most clients either had an issue of too many white walls or a patchwork of mismatched painted walls,” says Smith. “Working with each client to discover their palette was a combination of talk therapy and detective work, so I started taking notes.” 

These notes soon transcribed into a handbook Smith provides for her current clients. It begins with a simple quiz to narrow down one’s color preferences. Questions such as, ‘What shades are in your closet?’ or ‘What’s your favorite time of day?’ and even ‘Where is your ideal vacation?’ all factor into choosing the right palette for a home. “The process is to help clients understand why they like a certain color,” says Smith. “If you know why you’re choosing something, you’re less likely to make a mistake.”

The quiz helps one define what their color season is, and from there the choice is easy. 

Smith has divided her library of 64 shades (developed from years of customizing color palettes for clients) into the four seasons. Once a client knows their season, they chose the accent shades. The paint colors are available through Allison Smith Color Seasons paint line developed with Pratt & Lambert. 

“I think color is mood altering,” says Smith. “I believe you can do whatever you want with color, as long as it rings true to you.”